When midfield schemers, not canaries, ruled the roost

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The Independent Online
IT WAS once put to Bill Shankly that qualities reminiscent of his hero, Tom Finney, could be found in the style and application of a lauded young winger. "Don't you see a bit of Finney in him?" an unwary reporter asked. "Aye, but Tommy Finney is 53," Shankly retorted.

Next month, Johnny Haynes will be 65, an event that will be celebrated at a lunch thrown in London by one of his pals, Dennie Mancini, who is is still extremely active in boxing as a trainer and corner man.

I'm telling you this because Haynes's name has recently been cropping up in the heated debate over the paucity of England's midfield endeavours and why players of his type, "schemers" as they were known, are no longer available.

Anyone who saw Haynes play in the colours of Fulham and England was left with an impression of terrific ball-striking ability and judgements so precise that even the best defences of his day were never safe from sudden penetration.

Haynes isn't inclined to remark about the game as it is now, but recognises that the pace and organisation of modern football make it more difficult for players with his creative instincts to prosper.

As time goes on, and we are able to watch the game grow positive about nothing but commercial growth, the damage done in this country by a past coaching regime is most obvious in its effect on the supply of gifted midfielders.

Let us go back to a session with youth players put on at Lilleshall some 12 or so years ago by the Football Association's then director of coaching, Charles Hughes, who was behind the direct method that became more fashionable than was good for the long-term future of English football.

Hughes dressed the midfielders of both teams in yellow bibs and issued the instruction, "Miss out the canaries". Clever play was only permitted in forward areas.

No wonder Kevin Keegan wishes that Paul Gascoigne, on and off the field, had taken greater care of himself, though in truth he isn't from the same mould as Haynes and some of the other creators who have been mentioned.

What Keegan yearns for is someone with enough pace and strength to get behind the first line of defence from midfield and be alert to openings.

David Beckham has the touch and an impressive range of passing but doesn't possess enough speed over the ground to suggest that he can end Keegan's quest for a pivotal figure.

The notion that a specifically inventive force is desirable, if not vital, is not generally supported by modern thinking. Coaches today are more likely to favour athletic and talented all-rounders like Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira.

The decision of Brazil's then coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to leave out his playmaker, Rai, during the latter stages of the 1994 World Cup finals was seen as a denial of tradition but none of the men responsible for running Brazil's team have been suckers for romance. Relying mainly on his full-backs to get forward as suppliers for Romario and Bebeto, Parreira went against popular thinking.

But now the word is on many lips. In the frenetic rush to conquer midfield, to at least establish numerical and physical parity, how do we encourage and nurture ingenuity?

After England's failure to break open Poland's defence last week, when their play was almost devoid of imagination, my colleague Richard Williams put forward the idea of an academy for playmakers.

A personal point of view, one nobody is obliged to share, is that creative instincts can only be sharpened by experience.

Nobby Stiles recalls playing in Manchester United's reserve team alongside a canny inside-forward, Ernie Taylor, who was approaching the end of his career. "I learned more about the game from being alongside Ernie than I could have from any coach," Stiles recalled. "Nowadays reserve teams are made up of teenagers."

The first time I came across Haynes was in a Football Combination match at Craven Cottage. "This kid [at the time he was 16] is hot," I was told. "Make sure you're always goalside of him." He had this knack of holding you off and turning to make his through passes. I obeyed instructions but couldn't get near him. I shall tell him that when we get together for his birthday.